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Interviews

A Divided Opposition

Burhan Ghalioun, outgoing head of the SNC

Burhan Ghalioun has proven to be a controversial leader of the SNC. Based in neighboring Turkey, he originally agreed to step down earlier this month in a bid to forestall the movement from being divided further, after activists in Syria criticized him for monopolizing power. Now, given the news of his resignation this week, The Majalla brings you an interview with the long-time dissident, who claims to be confident that splits in Syria’s opposition will be solved, and rules out negotiations with Assad’s government.

The Majalla: If you are willing to hand over power to another person or party, why do you face so much criticism?

It is because the Syrian people and the revolutionaries feel strongly that any such extension is a thing of the past. In fact, the problem is that the term is not enough for action; it should be longer until a plan is implemented. Three or five months are not enough. Any serious project can’t be achieved in such short time. We have an ongoing revolution. However, if this is the demand of the youth who are sacrificing on the ground, I will do it.

Q: What should the opposition focus on in the current stage?

Our strategy is to support the revolution inside Syria by all means, to ensure its continuation and victory. This will not change just by changing the chairman of the National Council. If you asked me what my main focus in the coming period will be, the answer is to restructure the Council as soon as possible, and maybe handing over its presidency to another party.

Q: But challenges facing the process of restructuring seem huge, especially after the committee appointed to prepare the process announced its failure?

No, the accurate information is that in [the meeting of the opposition before the second conference held by Friends of Syria], a preparatory committee was formed to prepare for a consultative meeting to discuss restructuring the National Council. This committee comprises five members of the Council and five from outside, and it is still working. However, the outside members have issued a statement, which I think is incorrect and unnecessary. I contacted an assistant of an Arab League envoy who participated in the meeting, and he told me that issuing the statement was wrong and he would contact the members who issued it.

Q: So the preparations have not failed?

No, work is still underway. So far, the consultative meeting has not been held. It will be attended by representatives of all parties, from inside and outside the Council; all new political and civil powers which want to join the council or are supposed to join it. There could be a crisis within the committee, but the process of restructuring has not failed, because we have not reached the consultative meeting to launch it.

Q: Was the consultative meeting the reason behind your refusal to hold the opposition conference in the Arab League? Did you oppose holding such a conference?

We agreed with the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Araby when we met him in Beijing, even before issuing invitations to the conference, to separate the conference from the meeting on restructuring, which we named the consultative meeting. We explained our view to the Secretary General, that the National Council will be the one to issue invitations to the consultative meeting and will invite the Arab League as an observer. There should have been a distinction between the consultative meeting and the opposition conference the League was invited to, as it aims at issuing a document that represents a unified stance by the Syrian opposition, and a unified view of Syria’s future. We told the Secretary General that the AL conference does not have to discuss establishing a new opposition structure, but reach an agreement on a document that can be accepted by the National Council, or any other party – a document stating the main principles agreed on by all parties.

Q: Why did you refuse to attend the conference?

We refused to go because we didn’t want to attend an Arab League conference to dispute among ourselves and disclose our differences. The original aim of the conference was to announce an agreement, and we said that the best thing is to have a document to agree on. Even the Secretary General suggested that this document would be Syria’s future national pledge, issued by the National Council itself. However, we found that the invitation included a different conference plan; it was basically an opposition conference and a consultative meeting to restructure the national council. We have attributed this to a misunderstanding inside the League in determining the aim of the conference and its main mission.

Q: Some within the opposition parties referred to efforts by the arab League and Kofi Annan, who considers himself an intermediary between the Syrian regime and the opposition, which makes it logical to be invited to a dialogue with the regime. So what is the possibility of your entering a dialogue with the regime?

This is true, and it was one of the reasons behind our refusal to attend the conference.  The statements of the Secretary General surprised us; it indicated that the conference would authorize a delegate to negotiate with the regime’s representative. In fact, during the past period we [the National Council] have always reiterated that we don’t consider Annan an intermediary between us as the opposition in general and the regime, and that we will never accept him to be. This was not the aim of his plan; Annan’s role is to transform the country from a dictatorship into a democracy that represents the people’s will; but not mediation between the opposition and the regime. We will not accept such dialogue or mediation, but we will negotiate on handing over power to a democratic regime. Thus, the Arab League has a confused view of Annan’s mission. He is not assigned to gather both parties in a dialogue, as no Syrian will now accept to negotiate with killers, how can we accept reforms or compromises? According to our view, Annan’s mission is to transform the country into a democratic regime and put an end to dictatorship. If this is not the case, we have nothing to do with it.

Q: It seems that Annan is proceeding with his plan, despite statements by many Western and Arab countries, and even the Syrian opposition, that the plan has failed. What is your plan?

Since the first day of the plan, we said that it was going to fail. We didn’t expect that it would ever succeed. We said that we welcomed it, because we wanted the world to see the nature of this regime which refuses any political solution and is still resorting to the use of force. We said, in the meantime, that we were not under any illusions, but you would see that the regime will not implement or be committed to any of its provisions.

Q: So what are your alternatives?

Our alternative is the revolution itself. We have never bet on Annan’s plan, the UN or its resolutions. The Syrian people are betting on its youth, their struggle and sacrifices. Thus, our strategy is the lasting alternative which is to strengthen and support the uprising in order to endure, and to defeat the regime. This can be done by gathering international efforts through restructuring the National Council, in order to be more efficient in putting our house in order. The Council also has to unify and organize the brigades of the Syrian Free Army under  political supervision, and provide it with advanced weapons to be able to resist the regime’s brutalities. This is our strategy, and  not reliance on mediation or negotiation with the regime.

Q: In regards to the Free Army and the increasing tendency of the international community towards imposing a safe zone which requires a unified and coherent Free Army (at least to protect civilians), do not you think that the Free Army has been exhausted by lack of weapon supplies and reports about Al-Qaeda in Syria?

We are still counting on the Free Army, which is stronger than a few months ago. It is not true that it is regressing. The numbers of defectors, volunteers, soldiers, and rebels are increasing. Also, its organization and armament have been improved, and it has become a significant force.

Q: Given the circumstances, are you optimistic about the National Council restructuring itself and gathering international support?

We are nothing but optimistic; we have no future but victory and defeating the regime. Even if we do something wrong, we have to correct it; if we divide we have to address our divisions. We should not forget that we are vulnerable to penetration by the regime which has spent more than four decades preparing its security and intelligence agencies for the day of the uprising. Therefore, we have to be careful when people speak about divisions. Some people say that 75 percent of these divisions are attributed to regime penetration. We have also to be careful and believe that our cause is fair. We should lick our wounds and proceed. There is no other solution.

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Roshan Kasem
Roshan Kasem is a Syrian–Kurdish writer based in northern Iraq.

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